By William Watts, MarketWatch
A data firm hired to support President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign harvested private information from 50 million Facebook users without their permission, the New York Times and the Observer of London reported Saturday.
The newspapers, citing former employees of Cambridge Analytica, associates of the firm, and documents, described the harvesting effort as the largest data breach in Facebook’s history.
The New York Times said Cambridge Analytica was able to exploit the social media activity of a swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that was central to its work for the Trump campaign in 2016.
In a blog post late Friday, Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB -0.14% Deputy General Counsel Paul Grewal said the company had suspended Cambridge Analytica and parent firm Strategic Communications Laboratories for policy violations. He said Cambridge Analytica had come into possession of, against Facebook policies, personal data harvested from some 270,000 users of a personality prediction app.
He said Facebook had learned in 2015 that the app’s operator, Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology professor, had passed data along to Cambridge Analytica/Strategic Communication Laboratories and another firm, at which point it removed the app from its network and accepted assurances that the data had been deleted. Facebook learned “several days ago” that the data had in fact not been purged, he said.
On Saturday, in an updated statement, Grewal said “the claim that this is a data breach is completely false.”
Grewal said Kogan had “requested and gained access to information from users who chose to sign up to his app, and everyone involved gave their consent. People knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked.”
In a statement on Saturday, Cambridge Analytica said it “fully complies with Facebook’s terms of service. We are in touch with Facebook now and can confirm that we do not hold or use any data from profiles.”
Cambridge Analytica said that when it became clear that data had been obtained in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, it deleted all data received from Kogan’s firm and that it had not used any of the data in its work for Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Kogan didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment.